The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Malcolm and Alex Haley, is replete with references to “playing the numbers.” A small-time version of playing the lottery that was characteristic of lower-income communities throughout major urban centers, playing the numbers was most definitely illegal, but highly popular. It involved choosing a series of numbers in the hopes that those numbers would match an identified outcome from some sporting event, often horse racing. As a lucrative illegal pastime, numbers games were often controlled by organized crime figures, who both ensured the integrity of the process and the collection of debts from those who played and lost.
As discussed in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, numbers rackets were a regular part of everyday life in the Detroit and Harlem ghettos. As Malcolm described the situation:
“Back when I was growing up, the ‘successful’ Lansing Negroes were such as waiters and bootblacks. To be a janitor at some downtown store was to be highly respected. The real "elite," the "big shots," the "voices of the race," were the waiters at the Lansing Country Club and the shoeshine boys at the state capitol. The only Negroes who really had any money were the ones in the numbers racket, or who ran the gambling houses, or who in some other way lived parasitically off the poorest ones, who were the masses.”
In repeated passages, Malcolm refers to numbers as a normal part of life, as when his friend Shorty used his winnings from the game to purchase his saxophone. That the numbers rackets were part of the underworld, however, was particularly evident in Malcolm’s observation regarding various illicit activities:
“Every day I listened raptly to customers who felt like talking, and it all added to my education. My ears soaked it up like sponges when one of them, in a rare burst of confidence, or a little beyond his usual number of drinks, would tell me inside things about the particular form of hustling that he pursued as a way of life. I was thus schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X treats numbers running as both the illegal activity that it was, and the manifestation of lower-income communities' dreams of a better life that would only come about by winning the neighborhood version of the lottery.